Parasociality: a social pandemic

The rise of platforms like Twitch, which allows people to interact with their favorite internet celebrities in real time, furthers our detachment from real life as we escape into the virtual and one-dimensional.

The fantasy of imaginary friends is one common in childhood and one naturally outgrown, usually along with the training wheels on our bicycles. That creative ability to form non-fictional bonds with fictional characters, however, is one uniquely human trait we can never really outgrow.

Parasocial relationships, at their core, are best described as imaginary. They are purely one-sided attachments formed between a media product and a media consumer who identifies and feel an empathetic connection with the figure’s curated public image. 

The prefix “para” itself lends an air of abnormality to parasocial relationships, yet there is nothing strange, or at least unfamiliar, with treating our favorite characters or celebrities as if they are our friends. After all, through novels, TV shows and social media, we see them humanized as they live through the tribulations of life not so different from ours. Our persistent exposure to these figures gives them a sense of realism that we personalize into a seemingly authentic presence in our lives. Though we know logically that the character isn’t real or the relationship with the celebrity is practically unattainable, they have been presented in such a relatable way that we perceive them as real. 

According to the personal construct theory, proposed by psychologist George Kelly, every person imposes their unique personal construct or viewpoint onto the world around them. In other words, even if one’s perspective isn’t factual, like seeing fictional characters and personas as real, it is still reality to that particular individual. This is why parasocial relationships can feel every bit as genuine as actual friendships. 

The ability to mimic natural societal interaction is also why parasocial relationships can be dangerous to the point where they threaten the very fabric of someone’s reality. Especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, our natural social mediums like schools and workplaces are reduced to screens. Even if we want to pursue conventional social contact with our friends or family, we’d most likely be forced to do it digitally, which at best offers a pale imitation of the nuances of in-person experiences. Combined with the rise of gaming live streams on Twitch, extensive lifestyle blogs, interactive social media content and K-pop broadcasting apps like V Live, a slippery slope of exploitation can quickly occur among seemingly innocuous platforms. 

Since those who feel lonely in their lives are more prone to seek out companionship on the internet and develop parasocial relationships, those content creators who break the fourth wall by directly asking for donations or gifts can be accused of monetizing loneliness, most common of which are found in Twitch live streams. 

Twitch, an online streaming service for gaming, has become notorious for promoting exploitative parasocial relationships. The basic structure of the platform consists of someone live-streaming themselves playing a game while interacting with their audience through audio commentary and a live chatbox. Streamers make a profit by accepting donations from their audience through Amazon or PayPal. Because of this, many of them try to promote a sense of social reciprocity where they communicate regularly with their viewers, conversing as if they are personal friends and especially rewarding those who have donated money. 

Of course, this is not to morally condemn anyone who makes a profit from their virtual content; most are not interacting with their fans solely for monetary gain. However, any prominent personality or celebrity is unavoidably benefitting from the parasocial relationships their supporters have formed with them. 

The relationship between famous people and their fanbases is inherently parasocial in nature. Even if the celebrity tries to get to know their fans through in-person events or online activity, it is impossible that he or she will form a natural, two-sided relationship with every single supporter. This means that celebrities will always be using the attachment of their fans for their own prosperity, wittingly or not. 

However, this is not to say that all parasocial relationships are entirely harmful. All of us have had at least one parasocial exchange where we interacted with someone who doesn’t know of our existence, whether by listening to a song or watching a YouTube video. In fact, one could say that you, the reader, can be having a parasocial interaction right now by reading this article. 

While parasocial relationships are problematic because they seem so realistic, they can also be beneficial for the exact same reason. Since it is one-sided, there is zero chance for the viewer to be rejected or experience any of the other emotional unpleasantness in real relationships. Mukbangs, where a person eats food while talking on camera, for example, were originally created so people wouldn’t feel lonely when eating alone. But when it’s watched as an escapist form of compensation by increasingly isolated viewers, the parasocial relationship shows the intoxicating danger of an implicitly comforting virtual environment. 

In the midst of the Digital Age in a pandemic, parasocial relationships and interactions are exceedingly more common. Indulging in fictional characters and personas can offer a welcome escape from reality, as long as the fantasizer can distinguish between fact and fiction in a world where the lines become more blurred each day.

By Cathy Li, Staff writer
Editorial cartoon by Rikka Tagayuna